UK Faces Calls For Plan B With Virus Cases High And Rising

Last year, the UK's second wave of coronavirus infections left Christmas as good as cancelled for millions of people in the UK who were unable to visit loved ones.

Most of the country was restricted to just one day of mixing with their ' Christmas bubble ', while people living in London and the south east were ordered to stay at home entirely.

And then on January 6, England entered its third full national lockdown - which lasted in some form well into spring.

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This year, families in the North East and beyond will be hoping for a very different Christmas.

More than 80 per cent of people over the age of 12 in the UK have now been fully vaccinated against coronavirus, and more than 15.6 million of the most vulnerable people have received their booster.

But with tens of thousands of Covid-19 cases still being reported daily, and steep rises in infection rates being seen in much of central Europe, is there a chance the UK may be facing another winter in lockdown?

Some experts have warned that the UK could face the reimposition of restrictions in the future unless action is taken now, but so far Boris Johnson's contingency plans for winter, that he refers to as ' Plan B ', remain firmly in their box.

Decision-makers believe, at this stage, that much lower levels of hospitalisation and death, and the protective impact of the booster jab, means the UK in a much better position than some European countries which have lower rates of vaccine uptake.

But while hospital admissions and deaths are much smaller in numbers than they were this time last year, the NHS is creaking under "unprecedented pressures", and there is fear a rise in Covid could cause the health service huge problems.

With just one month to go until Christmas, we look at where we are with the latest data, what has happened to the government's 'Plan B' and whether another winter lockdown is likely.

What's happening with case rates, hospitalisations and deaths?

The general picture shows that although case rates in the UK are relatively high, hospitalisations and deaths are being seen in much lower numbers than they were in earlier waves.

The latest data from the government's coronavirus dashboard suggests that around three-quarters of local authority areas in the UK are seeing a week-on-week rise in case numbers.

Over the last three months, the UK has been recording an average of 37,634 new cases of coronavirus each day.

Across the North East though, Covid is having an impact on our hospitals. There are around 75 Covid patients on the wards in Newcastle, and roughly 30 in Gateshead.

This is much less than at the height of last winter's second wave of Covid infections, and thankfully just a "handful" of those patients are in intensive care.

However, Professor John Edmunds warned that cases "could really take off" as winter approaches.

“We’re going to have high levels of infection for many months," the epidemiologist predicted. "I think the NHS will unfortunately be under significant strain. It may not get to breaking point, where we were close to before, but significant strain for a very long period of time is certainly on the cards.”

Covid daily case rates in the UK in late November
Covid daily case rates in the UK in late November

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests one in 65 people in private households in England are infected with coronavirus.

That level of infection is still "quite high", according to Professor Kevin McConway of the Open University.

“Now that vaccination has had such an effect on hospitalisations and deaths, a rate this high isn’t as concerning as it was earlier in the pandemic, but it’s still too high for comfort," he said.

“Things aren’t yet anywhere near back to the pre-pandemic normal. We’re getting further into the cold season of the year when respiratory infections tend to do their worst.”

While deaths remain much lower than they were during the peak of the second wave in January, they do appear to be increasing in numbers.

Figures show that the number of weekly registered deaths involving coronavirus in England and Wales has now passed 1,000 for the first time in eight months.

Official stats on deaths in England and Wales because of Covid-19 in November 2021
Official stats on deaths in England and Wales because of Covid-19 in November 2021

Over the last three months, the UK has been recording an average of 136 further deaths within 28 days of a positive test result each day.

The highest number of deaths on one single day was 1,484 on January 19.

However, new figures do suggest that the booster vaccine programme, which began in September, may already be having an impact on deaths.

People aged 80 and over accounted for 44.6 per cent of deaths in the most recent data - down from 46.2 per cent in the previous week and 50.4 per cent two weeks earlier.

What are the chances of another Christmas lockdown?

Some countries in Europe have brought in new lockdown measures as they struggle to contain new waves of the virus.

But ministers in the UK have insisted for weeks that another lockdown would only be introduced a last resort.

Boris Johnson has said that while he doesn't believe restrictions are needed at the moment, he will not rule out a lockdown over Christmas in the event of case rates rising further.

Some scientists have previously warned that cases will grow in numbers if new restrictions around social distancing and mask-wearing are not introduced ahead of the busy winter period.

But the government is reluctant to reintroduce any measures that many damage the economy.

UK Hospitality chief Kate Nicholls warned that the Christmas season is “desperately important” for the survival of pubs, bars and restaurants.

“A lot of businesses are still fragile," she pointed out. "Any knock at this point in time could have an impact on viability. People will just go to the wall.”

So how do we avoid a fourth lockdown?

The prime minister's plan is to hold the virus at bay by vaccinating as much as the population as possible.

At a recent press briefing, Mr Johnson explained: “Those countries with lower vaccination rates have tended to see bigger surges in infection and in turn been forced to respond with harsher measures, while those countries with higher vaccination rates have so far fared better.

“It shows us that if we want to control the epidemic here in the UK and if we want to avoid restrictions on our daily lives we must all get vaccinated as soon as we are eligible.”

Covid-19 vaccination rates in the UK in November 2021
Covid-19 vaccination rates in the UK in November 2021

Scientists are hopeful that the roll out of booster jabs should help the UK escape the surge in infections seen in parts of Europe.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, one of the experts behind the creation of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, said it is “unlikely” the UK will see a similar rise.

“We’ve actually had some spread (of the virus) going on since the summer, and so I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to see the very sharp rise in the next few months that’s just been seen," he said.

"We’re already ahead of that with this particular virus, the Delta variant.”

Professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, Linda Bauld, said that the UK likely has higher levels of natural immunity to the the virus due to high levels of infection seen in the past.

Ministers are urging people to wear a mask in enclosed spaces and keep up with practices such as keeping two metres away from others and regular hand washing.

They have not, however, decided to reinstate mandatory mask wearing in certain public places or limit social gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus.

Advice on regular rapid testing has also changed in the lead up to winter.

While it was before advised that people should use the free lateral flow tests to test themselves twice a week, people are now being told to take a test before mixing with others indoors or meeting up with vulnerable people.

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What about 'Plan B'?

'Plan B' was outlined by Mr Johnson back in September when he put forward the government's plans for tackling coronavirus through the winter.

Measures that could be introduced as part of the government's contingency plans include a return to mandatory mask wearing in public spaces and advising people to work from home where possible.

This week, Mr Johnson said the government currently sees no need to introduce 'Plan B' restrictions.

Speaking at the CBI conference in South Shields earlier this week, Mr Johnson said: “You have got to be humble in the face of nature but at the moment we see nothing in the data to say that we need to move from plan A to plan B, or any other plan.

“The best single thing you can all do is get your booster. When you are called forward to get it, please do so.”

The government has said that vaccine passports are being held in reserve and could also be used in the future.

Speaking about when such plans may be 'triggered', health secretary Sajid Javid said he would look carefully at the pressures on the NHS.

"If at any point there was a significant rise in hospitalisations, and we thought they were unsustainable, then we would look carefully if we need to take any of those Plan B measures," he said.

"They would be informed by the data. Of course, we would come to the House at the time and make the appropriate response."

What is the situation in Europe?

Europe remains at the centre of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and could see another 700,000 deaths by next spring, topping two million in total, the latest predictions suggest.

The European region, which stretches into central Asia, reported that deaths due to Covid-19 rose to nearly 4,200 per day last week — a doubling of levels recorded at the end of September.

Covid-19 case rates across Europe
Covid-19 case rates across Europe

Cumulative deaths have now reached 1.5 million in the region.

In the last week, Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium have all adopted stricter measures including partial lockdowns to try to stem the latest surge of the coronavirus.

Germany is also set to record more than 100,000 Covid-19 deaths this week, with some politicians now calling for a vaccine mandate, like the one ordered in Austria.

Some countries are even introducing restrictions that only target the unvaccinated, in a bid to drive up vaccination rates and reduce cases.

Dr Hans Kluge, regional director for WHO Europe, said in a statement: "The Covid-19 situation across Europe and central Asia is very serious.

"We face a challenging winter ahead, but we should not be without hope, because all of us — governments, health authorities, individuals — can take decisive action to stabilise the pandemic."

He urged countries to adopt measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing to prevent the need for harsher lockdowns.

What will New Year look like?

Some experts have predicted that cases will rise into the new year as winter gets underway and the NHS struggles with high demand.

One expert said that a rise in coronavirus cases is likely to coincide with schools returning after Christmas.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said it is clear that children and school holidays play “a key role in the waves of infection”.

The lead scientist on the Zoe Covid Study app insisted it is important to look further ahead than Christmas.

“There’s a long road ahead and I think we’ll be dealing with Covid for the next five years," he said.

"It’s important we have a strategy that looks much further ahead and not just to save Christmas.”

Experts have repeatedly warned that the UK will be dealing with the virus for years to come, and regular booster vaccine campaigns are likely.

Professor Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), said: “In the longer term, Covid is likely to become endemic and we probably are going to have to manage it with repeated vaccination campaigns for years to come.”

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Source : https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/uk-news/covid-plan-b-christmas-lockdown-22270521

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